Image: Airline customer service
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The airlines have the right to change their programs as they want — but the issue is the spin-doctoring that suggests that infrequent fliers are taking seats from more frequent fliers.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/26/2008 10:31:02 AM ET 2008-02-26T15:31:02

(Potential) old joke: How can you tell when an airline is lying?

Answer: When it begins any communication with “As part of our continuing efforts to provide valuable benefits ... ”

Hilarious, huh?

Alas, it’s no joke at all since that’s exactly how US Airways announced it was, ahem, improving its frequent flier program a few weeks ago. The new “valuable benefit”? Starting May 1, Dividend Miles members on flights of less than 500 miles will be credited for the actual miles flown rather than the 500-mile minimum that has long been the de facto industry standard.

Same flight, less credit. That’s not valuable. It’s priceless — and compelling evidence that George Orwell is still with us and gainfully employed in the airline industry.

From Newspeak to double-talk to gobbledy-gook
Orwell, you’ll recall, was the author of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the dystopian novel that gave us the meaning-mangling locutions (e.g., newspeak, doublethink) that most of us now lump under the general term of double-talk. And while it’s true Orwell died almost 60 years ago, you can’t help but suspect that the book is required reading in Airline Management 101.

It’s not just US Air, either. Last year, both American and United announced that they were changing their mileage plans by expunging accounts that hadn’t had activity during the previous 18 months (down from 36 months previously). Accounts started getting vaporized in December.

And how did the airlines announce the changes? “Because we value your participation in the AAdvantage program,” wrote American in an e-mail to members, “we want to let you know about an upcoming program change.” Maybe I’m slow, but it seems that booting people out of a program is a strange way to emphasize how much you value their participation.

United, meanwhile, announced its cutback — excuse me, change — with its own cheeky bit of double-speak: “New 18-month expiration policy preserves award seats for United’s most loyal customers ...” The new policy, we’re told, means that those customers will “compete with fewer people for award seats, making it easier for them to redeem their miles.”

The airlines, of course, have the right to change their programs as they want — and, truly, it’s not hard to keep an account active through affinity awards — but that’s not really the point. The issue is the spin-doctoring that suggests that infrequent fliers are taking seats from more frequent fliers. After all, if your account is inactive, it stands to reason that you haven’t been dipping into the award-travel pool. Somewhere, George Orwell is smiling.

Pack light or pack it in
Earlier this month, United fired another salvo in its war of attrition on customer service. Beginning May 5, customers flying in the U.S. and Canada will be charged $25 for checking a second bag. There are several exceptions — First and Business class passengers, elite-level mileage plan members, customers who purchase refundable (i.e., higher-priced) tickets — but the message to everybody else is simple: Lighten up or we’ll lighten your wallet.

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Naturally, the airline’s spin-meisters put it somewhat differently. “As part of its continuing effort to offer customers choice, flexibility and low fares, United is announcing a new, simplified checked bag policy ...” I’m not sure how adding a slew of new distinctions constitutes simplification, but I imagine the bureaucrats at Orwell’s Ministry of Truth would be very proud, indeed.

Clearly the move has more to do with the high price of fuel than it does with providing “choice, flexibility and low fares.” More bags means more fuel burned, and there’s a valid argument to charging a premium to those most responsible. The new fees, says the airline, are expected to generate more than $100 million a year in cost savings and new revenue.

No doubt they’ll generate a few other things, as well. Legions of angry travelers, for example. (Comments on msnbc.com's message board are running six to one against the policy.) A surge in bags weighing 49.9 pounds (in order to avoid the $100 surcharge for those over 50 pounds). And, in what will only exacerbate the overcrowding in the cabin, some of the biggest, bulkiest, most packed-to-the-max carry-on bags you’ve ever seen.

In fact, that’s likely to become the rule rather than the exception as more airlines begin “unbundling” baggage fees from their base fares. Many discounters already do so — both Skybus and Spirit Air just raised their rates for checking any bags — and it’s a safe bet the legacy carriers will be monitoring United’s move very closely in the months to come.

Honestly, I don’t have a problem with that. All I ask is that when they announce their new policies, they do so without the spin and double-speak. Tell us the unpleasant truth — fuel prices are killing us — and we’ll deal with it. We’ll bitch and moan and vent our spleen on the online forums and message boards, but trust us, we can take it.

After all, we’ve been doing just that — in the most unpleasant connotation of the phrase — for years.

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